Sefardim, Chanukah and Ocho Kandelikas

My father’s family, both the Joseph and the Lazarus side, have family trees that root them directly back to the Jewish community of Spain. Somewhere between their sojourns in places like the tropics of the New World and England, their free settling and convict immigration to Australia, and their secularization and acceptance into Australian society, alas, our Sephardi family customs were lost.

I have no Ladino or special Jewish foods, or customs that would tell me about the journey of my heritage. However, the knowledge that we were Spanish Jews was passed on from generation to generation. Because of my lack of ritual inheritance, as a Jew and rabbi, I have always been fascinated by the customs of various Sephardi communities and have “tried them on”. I always wonder: Is this something my family would have done?

This year, my soloist Stacy (whose family comes from Turkey and is also of Sephardi heritage) and I have decided to teach Flory Jagoda’s wonderful Ladino Chanukah song “Ocho Kandelikas” at services. But we needed a story to go with the song’s teaching… and my over-active imagination set to work. So here is a new story for Chanukah, evoking the wonderful Sephardi customs of the Jews of Aleppo, to teach a popular Chanukah song based on the memories of a Sephardi Jewess of Bosnian origin.

This story is for my Sephardi grandparents z”l, for my Nana Bobbie, who hated to cook and my Papa Keith who made her try. For Flory Jagoda whom I have now met twice since I have lived in the DC area who has dedicated herself to making sure that the Sephardic heritage lives on in her music and memories, and who is always gracious. And for Stacy, my soloist, who inspired me this week to write this story.

Sara Sasson adored Chanukah. She loved the stories her Syrian grandmother, her Nona, would tell about the marvelous women heroines of the Chanukah story. She was impressed at how brave Hannah was, for she watched her seven sons die because they would not worship the Greek gods. And she loved hearing of heroic Judith, who cut off the head of the cruel Greek General, causing his soldiers to run away!

Because of Hannah and Judith, and because of everything the Maccabees did, Papa would sing the blessings and light the oil lamps that made up their family Chanukiah. One oil lamp for the first night, two oil lamps for the second night, three oil lamps for the third night, four for the fourth night, five for the fifth night, six for the sixth night, seven for night-seven and eight for night-eight.

Then her Papa would light two special Shamashim. One lamp stood watch as the Shammas. It was for the family to see by, as the other lamps burned down.  A second lamp was lit to say thank-you to the town of Aleppo which had allowed many Jews to settle in her midst after they had been expelled from Spain, so, so many years ago.

Sara Sasson loved watching the lights of the oil lamp Chanukiah grow stronger and stronger during the eight nights of Chanukah and to sit by the light of the Shammashim. All the women in her household would stop work. It was as if the special celebration was just for them. Ah ! Beautiful Chanukah is here, eight candles for me!

Hanukah linda sta aki, ocho kandelas para mi,
Hanukah Linda sta aki, ocho kandelas para mi. O…

Una kandelika, dos kandelikas, tres kandelikas,
kuatro kandelikas, sintyu kandelikas,
sej kandelikas, siete kandelikas, ocho kandelas para mi.

By the light of eight lamps and two shamashim, Sara’s family and their guests would sit around and tell fearless fantastical family stories of how they had escaped from Spain and settled in Aleppo. They would talk of how in medieval Spain, like the Jews at the time of the Maccabees, they would have to hide the Jewish things they did so they were not punished for being Jewish. And they remembered being as brave as Maccabees as they travelled by ship from the coast of Spain to the port of Aleppo where the family had lived now for many generations.

By the lamp light, special Chanukah songs in ancient Hebrew and Ladino, the language of the Jewish of Spain, would be taught and sung. Some of the songs were special for Chanukah. But Sarah’s Nona also loved the many Ladino romance songs, and as she and Papa got carried away by the music, often these songs would sneak into their Chanukah parties.

In addition to the stories and singing there was so much laughter! Sara Sasson’s family had lived through hard times in Jewish history, but they had never lost their sense of humor and their ability to be joyful.  As Nona reminded them – their last name Sasson meant “joy” – so it was their inheritance to laugh! Their parties were filled with teasing and hugs and kisses. Ah! So many parties were held, with joy and with pleasure.

Muchas fiestas vo fazer, con alegrias i plazer.
Muchas fiestas vo fazer, con alegrias i plazer. O…

Una kandelika, dos kandelikas, tres kandelikas,
kuatro kandelikas, sintyu kandelikas,
sej kandelikas, siete kandelikas, ocho kandelas para mi.

Sara Sasson loved everything about her family’s Chanukah parties, but thought that the best part, really, was the special food! After all, as Nona would say:“We Jews love to eat! “

Sarah’s Nona would make and fry special treats made with milk and honey. She would explain that these were to honor Judith, who charmed her way into the Greek camp using a basket of cheese and wine. She shared the cheese and wine with the Greek General in his tent, and when he finally slept, stomach heavy with the rich food, Judith killed him, winning the war for the Jews! Sara Sasson wondered every time she heard this story if she could ever be that clever and brave?

And…  Sara thought, on the topic of wisdom, how clever Nona was at making such delicious food!

There was Atayef, stuffed pancakes filled with ricotta cheese and fried, then soaked in a honey-syrup flavored with orange-blossom water. Nona would dip one side of the sticky pastries into pistachio nuts. Mmm… Mmm. Sarah’s mouth would begin to water just at the thought of these treats.

She also loved Zalabieh, which was a fried ball of dough soaked in honey glaze which she would pop into her mouth as she listened to the stories and the songs.

And  delicious!  — Pastelikos: these cheese filled turnovers during the rest of the year were part of a savory dinner —  but at Chanukah, Nona made them special with a sweet filling of cheese decorated with almonds and honey. She would put them on the table and say: “Ah! We will eat Pastelikos with almonds and honey.

Los pastelikos vo kumer, con almendrikas i la myel
Los pastelikos vo kumer, con almendrikas i la myel. O…

Una kandelika, dos kandelikas, tres kandelikas,
kuatro kandelikas, sintyu kandelikas,
sej kandelikas, siete kandelikas, ocho kandelas para mi.

Such was the Chanukah celebration in Sara Sasson’s house from the time the eight oil lamps and two shamashim of their Chanukiah were lit, till the time the lights extinguished. After all the guests and partying and stories and songs, after all the delicious food, Sara Sasson, like the lamps which burnt down and fizzled out, would herself grow a little weary.

On the first seven nights after she had put herself to bed, she would think so happily in her between-wake-and-sleep state, of the next night when the festivities would start again! And when it came to the eighth night of Chanukah, once the whole celebration was almost all over, she would dream happily of  a joyous Chanukah next year.How they would begin again, all the celebrations and candle lighting — one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight — ocho kandelis para mi!

Wishing everyone a Chag Chanukah Sameach! A joyous festival of Chanukah! 

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About Rabbi Linda Joseph

Senior Rabbi of Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills MD, a suburb of Baltimore. I love God, Jewish traditions, creativity and texts. I enjoy teaching, prayer, community and connection. Storytelling, making art, listening to music, writing, reading and cooking are some of my passions. I am blessed each day when I get to play with my dog Ben Bag Bag and my cat Khazar and when I get to hang out with my husband Richard.

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